With composer Tan Dun on the podium, La Jolla SummerFest’s riveting presentation of his “Water Passion” at the La Jolla Playhouse Saturday (August 4) may be the festival’s finest hour. And not simply of this 2012 SummerFest, but of every SummerFest since the annual event was launched 25 seasons ago.
Over the years, this chamber music festival has staked its reputation on presenting standard repertory at a consistently high level of performance. New music has been treated as an optional side dish, and anything avant garde presented circumspectly as a rara avis.
“Water Passion,” a major work of recent vintage (2000), is a significant reinterpretation of the passion genre, conceived as an eclectic (but coherent) merging of eastern vocal techniques, experimental percussion approaches, western choral singing, and subtle digital adaptation. It may be an homage to the passions of J.S. Bach, but it departs from the narrative and musical conventions of that Baroque form even more exhaustively than Osvaldo Golijov’s Latin American street procession “La Pasión según San Marcos.”
More importantly, “Water Passion” takes its participants on a profound spiritual journey, recounting a sacred story most have known since childhood, but cast in a radically different musical idiom that releases this myth from both pious cliché and devotional inconsequence.
Selecting water as the primary sonic and symbolic metaphor, the composer has opened the Christian story of Jesus’ suffering and death to a nature-based, perhaps even universalist interpretation. According to the composer, “Water [is] a metaphor for the unity of the eternal and the external, as well as a symbol of baptism, renewal, re-creation and resurrection.”
On the Mandell Weiss stage, large glass bowls filled with water formed a cross that divided the performance space into quadrants, providing sectors for the male and female choristers, as well as the two solo singers and two instrumental soloists, violin and cello.
At three ends of the cross, solo percussionists played their individual water bowls, as well as a significant battery of timpani and untuned percussion instruments. From these deep bowls they drew a surprising array of sounds: scooping the water with their hands and letting it fall back into the bowl; beating the water’s surface with cupped hands like a drum; tapping wooden bowls upended in the water. All of these water sounds were picked up by adjacent microphones and melded into the sonic fabric by Yuanlin Chen at the mighty computer keyboard. Percussionists David Cossin, Dustin Donahue and Bonnie Whiting Smith mesmerized the audience not only with their evident technical prowess, but with the balletic grace with which they drew sound from bowls of still water!
Bass-baritone Stephen Bryant ardently propelled the passion narrative singing the words of Jesus and, in the opening section, those of John the Baptist, who aptly begins “Water Passion” with St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. A verteran of numerous “Water Passion” performances (he has also recorded the work), Bryant’s deep, well-modulated sonority suggested gravitas without the stoicism some singers bring to the role of Jesus in a traditional passion oratorio.
Although Tan has endowed Jesus’ vocal lines with the more ingratiating traditional arcs of western melody, he also requires the bass-baritone to employ buzzing extended vocal techniques and to sing low notes clearly below the bass-baritone range. Bryant has assimilated these challenges with unflinching confidence.
Chinese soprano Ying Huang brought luster, zeal and supple execution to the several roles “Water Passion” called her to play, from the demonic tempter in the wilderness (in his program notes, Tan credits this convention to Balinese ritual), to the disciples Judas and Simon Peter, occasionally the narrator, and to the young woman who accuses Peter as Jesus’ accomplice. I particularly admired her delicate yet penetrating sinuous descending shrieks as the devil.
Some 35 members of the San Diego Master Chorale provided the “Water Passion” chorus, which Tan used more like a Greek chorus that fused the passion’s emotional narrative into a continuous fabric, although on occasion the chorus erupted into the fury of the Biblical crowd that taunted and accused Jesus. Whereas Bach gave his choruses biting, angular counterpoint to this end, Tan pushes his chorus to actual shouts and screams. When the choral members were not singing, they too had percussion roles with finger cymbals and smooth rocks.
Perhaps Tan’s most radical passion innovation was reducing the “orchestra” to solo violin and cello, assisted by much percussion. Even the most precious, minimalist period instrument recreation of a Baroque passion is Mahleresque by comparison. Yet, violinist Cho-Liang Lin and cellist Felix Fan spun out gorgeous, compelling lines that alternately sustained, ornamented, cajoled and propelled the passion. To my ears, there was nothing minimal about this orchestra of two! Tan required these two quintessentially western instruments to incarnate the bent tones and microtones of Asian string instruments, which these players accomplished with finesse.
Could the direction of this “Water Passion” performance been more authoritative or exacting with anyone but Tan on the podium? I sincerely doubt it, although history reminds us that not every composer is his best interpreter. Igor Stravinsky was notably mediocre in front of even the best orchestras, and I am willing to bet that John Adams was exceedlingly grateful that Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the premiere of Adams’ complex and prolix “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” in May of this year.
“Water Passion” restores the original ritual function of a passion, immersing the listeners into their inner spiritual and moral trials with musical means closer to pure meditation than those of the traditional passions. Somewhere, the spirit of Thomas Merton is nodding in bemused approval: this is how it is done!